In the winter of 2014 Geri Rei was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. An aggressive course of treatment placed her cancer in remission, although by the next year it had spread to Geri’s brain.
Geri’s husband, Bill, stood by her throughout her endless appointments, radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and mastectomy. He stood by her when the doctors of the Mayo Clinic explained medicine could no longer help her. He sat at Geri’s side as she went on to eternal life on May 1st, 2018.
“Geri became very active advocating for breast cancer awareness after her diagnosis,” said Bill. “I wanted to help share her story, too. I reached out to artists I knew, asking them for artwork I could put on a T-shirt. But nobody really provided anything, so I just started drawing by myself.
“I couldn’t bring a sketch pad to my late wife’s doctor’s appointments. I discovered digital art, using an app to sketch on my phone. I’m a spontaneous person, so having an entire art studio in my pocket whenever inspiration strikes is perfect for me.
“I discovered I really love art. It helped me share what I was feeling but could never put into words. My emotions while I watched my wife grow weaker; my grief when she passed away.
“I’ve learned my art helps other people who are grieving. When I go to pow wows, art fairs and craft shows, I always meet people who have lost someone. It may have been a couple weeks ago or a couple of decades ago, but the pain is real, and it lasts. Creating art the way I have, it’s showed people that it’s okay to grieve, but also that it’s okay to move forward a little, too.
“My father is Chippewa and Métis, and my mother is Lakota and Dakota. My diverse Native heritage has given me rich traditions to draw from as I create art. I love using the floral patterns of the Chippewa. You’ll see them on the dancers’ regalia during pow wows, but also on their regular clothing, on their moccasins, in their homes – if the Chippewa can adorn something in flowers, they will.
“Flowers create a flowing beauty, and because many are used in traditional medicine they also represent different types of healing. I always try to understand the medicine behind flowers before I put them in my work.
“Animals play a central role in all tribal traditions, but I believe the horse is especially important to the Lakota. To them it represents freedom of movement, to be able to run the plains and hunt buffalo. A horse means being able to take care of your family. The bear and the buffalo both represent strength. Sandhill cranes represents love, because they mate for life.
“I think I relate most to the turtle, who represents wisdom. The turtle may be slow, but time is irrelevant to whoever lives a long time and watches. There is knowledge in patience.
“To all native cultures, family means everything. Not just your mom, your dad, and your siblings, but your aunties, uncles and grandparents. Your family also includes your friends and all the people you live with. We go through life together. We share the same spiritual destiny. We are all connected, and our love encompasses everyone. I always try to convey that in my art.
“Stories are a pivotal part of art. The canvas is just a window, but the story actually lets you open that window to see what’s inside. I write short stories to accompany each piece of my artwork and share the inspiration behind it, but I leave the meaning of the piece open to interpretation. I want people to attach their own significance to my work.
“I donate part of the proceeds from all of my art sales to the Bismarck Cancer Center where Geri received radiation treatment. They give all of their donations right back out – they don’t keep anything for themselves. It’s a small thing to do for our community which always helped Geri and me so much.
“It is important for me as an artist to connect with people. This is why I haven’t set up automated payments on my website. I want you to reach out to me directly so we can talk, really understand each other, and start a relationship.”
To learn more about Bill Rei’s vision, see his artwork for sale, and connect with him, please visit bountifulreis.com.
By David Scheller